If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. Building a good team and company culture is one of the most important things to get right from the beginning.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lev Barinskiy
Lev Barinskiy is an Insurance company executive on a mission to make the insurance buying process more efficient and help insurance agents become more successful by empowering them with innovative technology tools. Lev Barinskiy is currently the CEO of SmartFinancial and serves as an advisor and investor in multiple insurtech companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I immigrated to the United States at the age of 13 from Uzbekistan. As most refugees, my family came to this country with just a few suitcases and a couple of hundred dollars seeking more opportunities and freedom. Not only was I thrust into a whole new world with an entirely new language, while my classmates were having fun and being children, I was focused on learning the language and trying to figure out a way to provide for my family. Coming from a family of doctors and teachers my family always steered me towards academia but also supported all of my entrepreneurial endeavors.
I was in high school when I started my first business buying and selling used electronics and other merchandise in the early days of Ebay. It was a very successful operation with multiple employees packaging and shipping merchandise after school and my mother driving me to the post office late at night to ship these boxes.
I had my first office job as a senior in high school, at a very successful third-generation insurance agency in Columbus, Ohio. But everything was done manually. I was shocked by how low-tech it was, with files all the way up to the ceiling. This agency gave me an opportunity to learn the insurance industry, get licensed and ultimately led to me opening my own agency.
I started my first insurance agency when I was 20. As I learned more about insurance, I was always intrigued in using technology and automation and was looking for a better way to do things and run things more efficiently. To fund the high-tech insurance business of my dreams, I set up a concession stand with my friend selling hot dogs and gyros at Ohio State, which boasts the biggest stadium in the country. With the money we made feeding inebriated football fans, I invested in developing and growing the insurance business. In 2004, I met Seth Kravitz, who became my partner and we launched a website development company in my parent’s basement with a focus on building websites and marketing for insurance agents across the country, which ultimately grew to become InsuranceAgents.com. We learned a lot about growing a technology company and had our fair share of ups and downs. My current co-founder and COO, Nate Kropp joined the team as we were scaling InsuranceAgents.com and helped us build out our tech and operations teams. Ultimately, the company grew to become a leading insurance comparison site and was acquired in 2012. Nate and I decided to launch another company together and SmartFinancial.com was born shortly after the acquisition. We continued to work in the insurance space and started to look at solving more complex problems in the acquisition and distribution part of the supply chain. We saw a big opportunity for us to solve critical problems in how insurance was being bought and sold online. We saw a major shift in how consumers shop for insurance and began to build what is now one of the leading insurance marketplaces. In 2017 the company ranked in the Top 10 for Broker Management Solution Providers by Insurance CIO Outlook magazine. In 2018 and 2019, SmartFinancial was recognized as one of the fastest growing technology companies in North America by Deloitte’s Fast 500™.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
SmartFinancial is disrupting the insurance industry by putting the power of insurance shopping back in the hands of consumers so they can get the best value and shop from anywhere they want. We offer a transparent insurance-technology platform that matches insurance risk with the right insurance carrier.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My company, InsuranceAgents.com, had revenue of 12 million dollars and had just landed at №24 on the 2009 Inc. 500 when the technology infrastructure shut down and brought business to a standstill. Essentially, the problem turned out to be a result of miscommunication amongst the coders, who hadn’t put the website to an open beta test. Four months later and after a 200,000 dollars loan, the company was profitable again. Communication is everything.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I like to draw inspiration from many of the modern successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. But I often find the most practical and actionable suggestions from my family. There is something to be said about wisdom that comes with age and it’s often the basic principles of life that help answer complex business questions.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The insurance industry has been a target of disruption and increasingly so over the last few years. The way we view it at SmartFinancial, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with insurance. It’s an old concept and industry that needs to evolve and adopt technology to enable more efficiency.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1)If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. Building a good team and company culture is one of the most important things to get right from the beginning.
2) Education is important but character is paramount. When hiring people for our team, I give more weight to real world accomplishments rather than educational background.
3) Find what you like doing and double down on yourself. When I was in law school, I realized that practicing law is not something that I saw myself doing. One of my mentors at the time who happened to be a successful attorney, told me that since I was already gravitating towards entrepreneurship, I should focus on developing skills necessary to be successful in my craft.
Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
We’ve developed a proprietary process that uses a closed loop feedback system that continuously optimizes all of our process on millions of data points that we collect. Data is one of the most important assets in our business and having a platform that uses data to make buying and distribution decisions has really helped us stay ahead of our competition.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We are still in the very early stages of building our company and see SmartFinancial becoming a household name. We have a long term view with this business which really helps us shape many of the decisions that we make in terms of strategy and growth.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I recently read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday which is based on the Greek philosophy of Stoicism. It teaches the development of self-control and courage in the face of adversity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Work like someone is working 24 hours a day to take all away from you,” Mark Cuban. I think that work ethic and dedication to your craft is one of the most important pillars of success. You will always have worthy opponents and you might not be the most talented in the room but you can certainly outwork your competition.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Promoting entrepreneurial thinking at a young age.
How can our readers follow you online?